‘Who made my T-shirt? Is it fair trade?’ Shopping for answers at Galerie.LA

Galerie LA
Dechel Mckillian opened Galerie.LA with an eye towards fashion with sustainability and a social conscience.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The term “sustainable fashion” tends to conjure images of shapeless layers, washed-out hues and an overall aesthetic that could best be described as “crunchy.” Celebrity stylist-turned-retailer Dechel Mckillian is out to change that perception with her ethical concept store, Galerie.LA.

Located in emerging retail destination ROW DTLA, the 2-year-old women’s wear boutique stocks products that are eco-friendly, locally designed and produced, ethically made using fair trade practices, recycled and cruelty-free.

All those wordy, hyphenated descriptors aside, the key selling point is that they’re all chic.

As we head into the busiest shopping season of the year, Mckillian is part of a growing group of retailers promising a “guilt-free” experience, with opportunities to do good and look good at seemingly every turn. Each weekend this month, the store will host a holiday pop-up market featuring local designers who wave the “ethical” banner.

Perusing the airy, light-filled space, you can find flirty frocks, on-trend jumpsuits, high-waisted jeans and versatile intimates, all made from organic fabrics. There are gender-neutral garments by brands such as misterMrs and Faan. For shoe fanatics, there’s a small but stylish selection of ecologically responsible and cruelty-free shoes by Dopp and Taylor + Thomas. There’s minimalist, nature-inspired body-care products from the likes of Aenon’s and Earth Harbor.

Hozen’s canteen bags are made in fair-wage factories, and a percentage of the company’s profits goes to an animal charity. Rallier’s workplace-ready dresses help provide school uniforms to Kenyan schoolgirls. And Neococo, a line of hand-embroidered shirts, creates jobs for L.A.-area refugee women.

Shoes from Taylor + Thomas on display at Galerie.LA.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I instantly felt Galerie.LA would be a good fit,” said Neococo founder Amrita Thadani. “Consumers today are conscious buyers. They want answers to ‘Who made my T-shirt? Is it fair trade? Is the labor safe?’ We’ve participated in pop-ups organized by Dechel where consumers were able to meet our team of women and learn about their transition from Syria, Iraq and other war-stricken countries.”

Mckillian’s road to purveyor of globally conscious tees, plant-dyed blouses and ethically sourced earrings was hardly a straight path. The native Angeleno attended UCLA, where she studied psychobiology. At the time, her only fashion experience was a college sales associate job at the now-shuttered Vanity Room in Venice.

“I never, ever considered [fashion] to be a career,” she said during a recent in-store interview. “I was on track to becoming a doctor.”

Galerie LA
The Fiona bag by JW Pei made of vegan leather and recycled plastic bottles at Galerie.LA.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It took a single fashion merchandising course at El Camino College and a whirlwind European fashion tour through London, Milan and Paris to change her course permanently. By 2009, Mckillian was working with celebrity stylist Marco Morante, outfitting rappers such as Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj and the Black Eyed Peas. She spent two hectic, eye-opening years on the road, surrounded by luxury logos, flashy frippery and massive amounts of consumption.

“Traveling, I was seeing waste everywhere,” Mckillian recalled. “We were on a bus going through Lima, Peru, and there were just miles and miles of beach covered with trash, a lot of which looked like clothing. I was also going through my own conscious journey of caring about what I was eating, what I was using for skin care and what was in my clothes. So it was this awakening moment.”

She switched gears and launched Galerie.LA as a sustainable fashion blog in early 2015, researching sustainable brands, decoding their mission statements and deciphering whether they were truly walking the walk.

“There was a lot of greenwashing going on,” she explained, referencing companies that exploit the concept of sustainable practices purely for marketing purposes.

Icons show the social responsibility and sustainability in the fashion sold at Dechel Mckillian’s Galerie.LA.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The following year, Mckillian launched an e-commerce site with six brands and began to look around for retail pop-up opportunities. “I honestly did not have the intention of opening a physical store. My mindset was temporary. Being in the retail apocalypse, it was like, ‘You’re gonna open a store?! No way!’ ”

After a tour of ROW DTLA, she was smitten with the space; her bricks-and-mortar shop opened its doors in January 2018. The store’s aesthetic blend of modern, minimal and natural came from her love of artists Roy Lichtenstein and Georgia O’Keeffe. Mckillian also drew inspiration from highly curated boutiques like Opening Ceremony, Dover Street Market and Colette.

“I really wanted to make it a one-stop shop for the conscious consumer,” she said. “As we grow, I do see Galerie.LA as a department store where you can find kids’, men’s, women’s, body, home — all the sustainable products that are already edited for you. We’ve already done the research, which I think is the hardest part.”

Her research process includes verifying the Fair Trade and Global Organic Textile Standard certifications of her brands’ factories and fabrics. Mckillian said she prefers collaborations with emerging businesses over big corporations, claiming it’s easier to achieve transparency with smaller companies that don’t rely on outsourcing and middle men. “I take a personal approach,” she says, describing frequent exploratory phone calls with brand founders, as well as Skype tours of their facilities.

“Dechel was always someone with a clear-cut vision of what she did and didn’t like and was never afraid to let me know,” designer Morante said of his former protégé. “Sustainability is so important. I’m happy to see that she’s found a way to curate something that can be difficult to take to a wide audience, so that it feels fresh, exciting and relevant.”

Galerie LA
Back Beat Rags’ Jane hemp sweatshirt made of hemp and organic cotton on sale at Galerie.LA.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As she broadens her inventory and boosts the store’s visibility, she’s also aiming to expand shoppers’ ideas of just who sustainable fashion is for.

“I’ve been told that the African American community does not care about sustainability or green products, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’ Let’s not limit this conversation to ‘Only white people care about green in L.A.,’” she said. “I really want to break down the idea that sustainability has to be for one group of people. It can seem like such an elitist conversation, and I really want to make it available to the masses.”

Galerie.LA at ROW DTLA

Where: 767 S Alameda St. Ste. 192, Los Angeles


Hours: 11a.m. - 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday, with a special holiday pop-up each weekend through December.